Shelby Williams

I do not like to share my troubles on the internet. It is the farthest thing from what I am comfortable doing. However, I cannot share the meaning behind this painting without telling the most honest version of this story.

The idea for this painting came to me during a very difficult time of suffering. As a result, my process for this piece was outside the norm. Over the span of three hours I conceptualized, took a reference photo, and sketched the final draft. Rarely do I sketch the final draft on the same day that I have an idea. I usually like to allow time for the idea to develop. Despite the quick start, I was too ill to begin painting that night. Many artists express that art helped them get through tough times and I believe there is a place for that. However, I cannot say that art helped me in this particular situation at all. In this case the art is not the hero of the story, it is the story.  

I don’t want my story about this piece to overshadow any meaning that you’ve placed on it. Before you read any further, please take a moment to reflect on this painting and decide what it means for yourself. Yes, I used myself for the reference photo out of necessity, but this piece does not represent me or my struggle alone.

The edited reference photo (left) and final sketch (right).

My Story

It seems that each new year brings new health problems for me. That’s not to say that I was expecting a debilitating health issue. All seemed well in early January of this year (2019). I had commissions, my website was ready to launch, and I finally found a great work routine. My husband and I had hopeful plans for our finances and our lives. One day, out of nowhere, I started feeling a mild choking sensation and had difficulty breathing. It went away as quickly as it came and I made a mental note to see a doctor. A few days later, the choking sensation returned suddenly one evening as I was painting. Over the next two days it turned into something completely unmanageable. At the worst of times, it took all of my concentration and prayers to keep myself from gagging. It was so awful that I don’t want to go into any more detail.

The underpainting process.

The Process Begins

I thought the worst was over until the same thing happened again a month later. In February, I was sitting by the window in my living room thinking about how nice it would be to have some relief. My first humorous thought was that having a giant hole in my throat would solve so many of my problems, which sounded like an interesting idea for a painting. I’ve already painted someone with a hole in their forehead, so a hole in the neck isn’t off brand! Then I thought about trying to make it positive. Flowers growing out of the hole would symbolize healing and growth, but that didn’t seem honest. Having this scene take place under water seemed more genuine. Underwater scenes have always been a symbol of hardship in my paintings. Naturally, fish swimming out of the hole seemed appropriate. At this time I imagined the fish would symbolize whatever illness I had. Now I see the fish as symbols of burden, worry, and anxiety. More on that later.

After taking the reference photo and completing the sketch, I placed it in my sketchbook. I did not look at it again until the end of March when I posted the sketch on Instagram. By that time, I had discovered what triggered my illness and was able to avoid the worst of the symptoms. However, my triggers included most foods and any movement that caused me to breathe heavier than normal. Even doing simple household tasks were too much. Moreover, my symptoms seemed to rise and fall with my hormones. I was still weak, miserable, and I still had no diagnosis, but at least I felt enough relief to start the underpainting.

Health Journey

From January to April it felt as though I spent most of my time in doctors offices. Most of them took our money, patronized me, prescribed unhelpful pills, then referred me to the next doctor. I was amazed to find that I had placed so much of my hope in specialists. My husband and I became bitterly disappointed that none of them seemed to believe or understand my state of desperation. I did not look ill except for appearing gaunt and pale. If all the tests came back “normal” then they would not take any further steps to treat me. Ultimately, we had to take matters into our own hands and do our own research. It was not difficult to find answers.

I slowly came to my own conclusions based on research and some information from a very helpful nurse practitioner. For a little while I was getting better. After having surgery to correct an advanced chronic illness, I thought the choking sensation was gone completely. However, in recent weeks I have developed symptoms again. Thankfully, I now know the cause of the symptoms. While people often try to help by offering medical advice, it can do more harm than good. I’ve found that the best way for others to help is to listen and pray.

Expedius: free, unencumbered, without baggage, clear

I do not like to share my troubles on the internet. It is the farthest thing from what I am comfortable doing. However, I cannot share the meaning behind this painting without telling the most honest version of this story. I have had the worst five months that I have ever experienced. There were days where I could hardly move or eat. However, in the midst of my suffering God gave me rest, peace, and joy. Many of my friends prayed for me, encouraged me, and reminded me that we have a choice in every circumstance of our lives. We can let suffering and difficulty tear us down or we can let go of our burdens, have faith, and learn from whatever comes our way. It is never as easy as it sounds, but it’s very possible.

To represent this struggle, I considered painting the body of the person transparent like a fish tank full of fish with the hole in the neck blocked by bars. In the end, I decided to paint the fish freely swimming out of the hole in the throat to represent freedom and letting go. The fish themselves represent our deepest anxieties or burdens. Even when we let go of our burdens we will still experience suffering. This is why the person in the painting appears solemn. Notice that there are still some fish that have not exited. They represent the burdens that are seemingly impossible to be free from. We may never have freedom from illness or adversity as long as we live in our bodies. We are all guaranteed to suffer at some point in our lives. But why should that mean that we don’t have peace, joy, and hope?

God has shown me time and again throughout my life that He is the most deserving of my trust. He has guided me through every miserable night and desperate moment. He has shown me that illness cannot stop His plans for me. Our bodies do not last forever, but our souls are everlasting.

“Be of sober spirit, be on alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world.  After you have suffered for a while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen, establish you.”

1 Peter 5:8-10

It is possible to suffer and have faith. It is possible to suffer and have joy. Do not put the weight of solving your illness or troubles on yourself or you will be dragged into despair. You cannot do it through your own strength.

It is my deepest hope that someone reading this will be encouraged to tell their story in some way. I’m sure many of you are tempted to think that your story is not worth telling or that no one would listen. If you don’t speak, no one ever will. You don’t need to tell your story the same way I did. Tell it through words, painting, music, photography or in whatever outlet you choose.

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12 Responses

  1. “It is possible to suffer and have faith. It is possible to suffer and have joy.”
    Love this…thank you for sharing and for painting this journey and experience…

  2. Awesome & VERY encouraging story, Shelby! I began having crazy health problems, starting mainly 10 yrs ago, then the symptoms turning drastic… & Had the very same “doctor” experiences! Spent tons of travel & money goin to this , that & the other doctor, tons of tests, tons of costs… but the doctors said they found “nothing wrong”, & one even said it “was all in my head”! I was SO baffled, confused, & discouraged… but somehow “held on” to the faith of Jesus Christ, as I was tryin to make sense of it all, as well as “fix” it! I, too, was shown amidst it all that I’d been putting too much trust & confidence IN “what THEY say”… but that my life was in the Hands of the “Doctor” Jesus Christ, Who’d sometimes LET people DIE… just SO He COULD RAISE them FROM the DEAD, & that either He WAS “for” me, or He wasn’t… & I had to actually “let go” of all that was stressing me out, “step out of the boat”, so to speak, & either God WOULD preserve my life & care for me, OR He wouldn’t, & if He didn’t care to, then I had no reason to live afterall. I ended up soon becoming “homeless”, & staying in shelters &/or other places that God opened up before me… & have been learning THE EXACT SAME LESSONS that YOU have been learning & sharing, here! Our God has been SHOWING me that He (always) has provisions to use to care for me, & use me to help & bless others, too, WHETHER they are “popular” & “acceptable”with the bulk of mankind’s official “judges” (doctors, etc), OR NOT! I finally (against all odds) got blessed with “Disability” coverage a couple yrs ago, & an apt… but “they” (SS, drs, etc) are also liable to pull it out from under me at any time… but I’ve learned (& am still learning) to NOT “fear”, but to just trust it all to our Lord Jesus’ hands, & continue “doing my best” at whatsoever He opens for me to do! Blessings to ya! Thia is an awesome “real” testimony, “illustrated” even, that you’ve shared here!

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your story! You are right to put your hope and trust in Jesus. He is always faithful through any circumstance, providing exactly what we need. It sounds like you have a powerful testimony that God will use to help others who have experienced the same struggles with illness and faith. Thank you for your encouraging words, they really mean a lot to me!

  3. Wow! This is so we’ll written. Yet, it is difficult to read. But, at the same time, it’s uplifting and inspiring. A mish mash of emotions in just a few paragraphs! We love you and pray for your continued strength as you walk your journey.

    1. Thank you so much for your prayers and kind words, they are very encouraging to me! It was difficult to write, but I am glad for the good things that have resulted from an otherwise bad situation!

  4. Ugh, what a tough story behind the art. I’ve seen your works on Instagram and never thought twice about the meaning behind it and just thought it was all about aesthetics. But now knowing this, I cant help but say you’re a strongwilled human who embodies feelings into art really well. And that hey, you’re NOT alone. I’ve experienced going to dental clinics that couldnt care less about me and my teeth. In your situation, the least they could do was be caring and nice about turning you down, but yeah, it’s a business. And sometimes…people suck.

    Don’t let it make you cynical though. So many people out there, there’s definitely a handful of doctors who WILL care and help you. You’re amazing for going through all this and documenting it via paint. It’s hard. But it’s beautiful. I wish you good things to come, better days, and a stronger self!

    1. Thank you! It was very scary to write it down and share with so many people. You’re right, there are great doctors out there and not so great. I’m glad to say that I have found a few I can trust since then. I appreciate your encouragement and well wishes! I have been much better these days, but look forward to more healing!

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